Second Draft Joy

Back in December, I penned this post Why My Favourite Draft Is The Second, while I was busy writing the first draft of a YA novel called A Song For Bill Robinson. I was enjoying the first draft, but also realistic about its ugliness, and I was excited about going back to the second draft for the reasons I mentioned in the post.

Well, three months on, I am now well into that second draft, and enjoying it every bit as much as I said I would! It is easier than the first because the basic framework is there and the hard work has been done getting the story out of my head. I already know I can make it better and I have already listed and made notes of how to do this. The second draft is just fun!

I had to have a think about this earlier. Has this been the case with all my books? And I think the answer is yes. The first draft is the hardest for me. The later drafts are the most tedious because you know the story, and really you want to be writing something new, but you have to polish this thing up, cut bits out, sharpen it and refine it and make it as good as it was when it first appeared in your head. I think of the first and the final drafts as the real hard graft. The second, for me, is much more fun.

can you tell I'mhaving fun-

In many ways, the second is more of a read through than a rewrite or a detailed edit. After a break, I am familiarising myself with the story and getting to know the characters again. I read through each chapter, getting a sense of them and their motivations, making notes and finding my way back into it all. Of course, I fix any typos I come across, and I do a lot of deleting unnecessary and repetitive words or phrases. I tidy it up as much as I can, but at the same time, I know the more brutal cuts, the reshuffles and the changes in direction will all come much later. This is still very early days, and I want to enjoy it. I don’t feel the need to make any major decisions at this point.

At the moment, I am totally addicted to this particular story, which is also how I felt when I first wrote it. I suppose it’s more familiar ground for me as an author and a person. A gritty, contemporary YA drama with lots of dysfunctional family behaviours and social issues thrown in. I feel a passion for it. I want to tell these stories. And there are so many stories in this novel…

It’s fast paced. Which is good. I hope! On later drafts I might feel the need to slow things down a bit, my niggling worry being that it might come across as unrealistic for teens to have a life this dramatic. It’s literally a roller coaster of events, repercussions, consequences and drama. It’s full of highs and lows with plenty of unrequited love, dangerous lust, and familial miscommunication and resentment. Oh and of course, a rather wonderful soundtrack (the male protagonist is a talented singer) which ranges from The Four Tops and The Foundations, to Arctic Monkeys and Jamie T. There is just so much to play around with!

And I know I haven’t got it all right yet. I know I need to keep fleshing out the characters and finding stuff out about them. I know I need to work on the visuals, the environment, such as their homes and bedrooms and so on. I tend to forget about all that stuff on a first draft, knowing that no one else is going to read it for a long time. I just want to get the nitty gritty down first.

But at the moment I am enjoying the ride, and just felt the need to share that with you. Adding bits and cutting bits. Reading it like a reader and bloody enjoying the process. I can’t get enough of it.

I doubt I will feel this way by the time draft ten comes around, so this is why I savour the second draft so much. I know the time will come when I almost come to hate this book. I have been there with The Tree Of Rebels many times, and Elliott Pie reached that point just recently before I sent it out to a second round of betas. I was sick of it. I am sick of it. Diving into this much fresher book has been just what I needed.

So, for me anyway, I give my thanks to the wonderful second draft, with the foundations laid down and the really hard work yet to come. I shall enjoy the party while it lasts.

 

Message and Themes; What Are You Trying To Say?

When I was at school, English Literature was always my favourite subject. I was a total book-worm who dreamed of becoming an author, so you can kind of see why I adored English Literature. Reading books, talking about books and writing about books was my idea of heaven. Having said that, there was always one part of the subject that annoyed me at times. When analysing a text, the teacher would often ask us to think about what message the author was trying to get across. It was a question akin to the equally confusing one; what are the themes of the novel? I remember thinking, I bet the author didn’t know there was a message or a theme, or that we would try to work one out. I always considered that Shakespeare, Bronte and Steinbeck just wrote books because they had great ideas, great characters, and could string some pretty awesome sentences together.

But English Lit demands we find the messages and the themes, and yes, when you pick apart a text and analyse it within a classroom setting, you do tend to find them. But were they intended? I suppose I’m asking, did the author write the book with a theme or a message in mind? Or is it the reader who later determines what the potential messages are? I mean, did Steinbeck write Of Mice and Men because he had something to say about society or human nature? When I was a kid, I thought not. But it turns out I was wrong;

In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.

John Steinbeck in his 1938 journal entry
I remember trying to distinguish the themes of the novel when I was at school. What seemed so obvious to the teacher, had to be pointed out to us. I haven’t read the book since then, but it is on my to-read list as part of a reading challenge I’m undertaking, where one of the books has to be one I read in school. But I think I will see things differently now.
Why? Because I am approaching my fourth decade and I’ve seen enough of life, love, people and society to know that Of Mice and Men is not ‘just a story’ as I once mistakenly believed. It’s a book about dreams and aspirations, loneliness and solitude and the author had plenty to say about all of these things. I am now the writer I hoped I would be, and writing books is a fascinating process, which involves the seed of an idea germinating into an intricate plot full of characters who become real to you and set up camp in your head. But more than that, writing is about what you want to say to the world.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately after I received feedback from a beta on my still unfinished novel Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature. One of the things she picked up on was the messages or themes of the book, and in particular, her observation that some of the characters had views very similar to my own. She felt this at times made the narrative somewhat preachy, or at least, it was in danger of heading in that direction.
I had to stop and think about what she meant. None of the characters are me, or based on me, or anyone I know. I plucked them up out of the thin air to build around the character and story of Elliot, who I really did know and believe in.
However, I have to admit that unintentionally, or at least sub-consciously, bits and pieces of the writer and the writer’s viewpoints seep into the writing. I knew what this book was about, and I knew from the beginning what I was trying to say, so as you can see, I have come a long way from my previous scepticism that books did not contain deliberate messages. On the contrary, I have had something to say in all of my books, and I think it very much depends on what is going on in my life at that time. For this book in particular, Elliot and his mother are like the two sides of me. One side is heartbroken and terrified about the state of our world and wants to withdraw from it all, while the other side is perpetually hopeful and joyful, determined to the best in everything.
So is this a good thing or a bad thing? I think my beta was right to point out the danger of appearing preachy in the narrative. I certainly don’t want my books to come across that way. I have to be sure it is the character’s viewpoint being explored, not the author’s. I have to be conscious of what is being portrayed as ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ So at the moment, I am going through the book again, with the beta’s notes beside me. Sometimes it just needs a tweak, some words rearranged or deleted. Sometimes I don’t need to do anything because I think the character truly believes in what they are saying, and in doing so is remaining true to character.
This brings me to another question, though. Do people pick up books looking for messages or themes? Do most readers notice them, even if they are supposed to be there? I suspect that what one reader picks up as a message or theme, is very different to anothers. Do readers want to be spoken to in this way? I don’t think many people pick up a book looking for clarity or persuasion. I think they pick up books looking for stories. And stories involve people and their messy human lives, and messy human lives contain messages, whether intentional or not. Because they are written by one person, created by one person, and whether they were totally aware of it or not at the time, that person had something to say.
So, what do you think? As a reader, do you choose a book because of the message it seems to be conveying? Do you notice the themes of a novel as you are reading it, or do they become obvious to you afterward? Do you ever feel like the writer is trying to tell you something about the world or about life? Does this every feel like you are being preached to?
And what about you writers? Do you know what you are trying to say before you start to write the book, or does the message reveal itself to you in time? Are you aware of any themes in your book, and again, are these intentional? Do you ever worry that you are trying too hard to get a message across?
Please feel free to join in the conversation!

It’s Not Done…Until It’s Done!

I often get asked how I know when the book I’m working on is finished. If you’ve been following my struggles with The Tree of Rebels, you will know that I have now lost count of the amount of drafts I’ve done of this book. It’s got to be up to ten, at least! The same applies to The Boy With The Thorn In His Side. There were so many rewrites and drafts of that book that I lost count completely, but at a guess, I would say it easily passed twenty.

This is not true of all my books however. I think there were five or six drafts of The Mess Of Me, only three of Bird People and Other Stories, and probably around five or six for both This Is The Day and This Is Nowhere. For some reasons, those books were just all kind of done by the third draft, and just needed proofreading and polishing after that.

So, how does a writer know when they are done?

yuno

Well, I sort of have a system. If you can call it that.

I’ll explain it using my current work in progress, Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature. As you may already know, Elliot Pie has been written almost alongside The Tree Of Rebels, with me jumping back and forth between the two novels. If one was with beta readers, then I was working on the other one. If I needed a break from one, then it was the other one I’d stick with. Well, it now looks increasingly likely that Elliot Pie will jump past The Tree Of Rebels and become the next release. This is because I’ve decided to stick with it until it is done, and stop jumping between the two books. I also feel it is very close to being finished, much closer than The Tree Of Rebels, which requires a bigger rewrite, with added storylines.

But back to Elliot Pie. How do I know I’m nearly finished? Why is it likely to have a  lot less drafts/rewrites than other books? And how will I know for sure when it is truly ready?

It works a bit like this;

The first draft; ugly, clumsy, galloping, mad, hungry and glorious. An outpouring of ideas with a basic sequence of events, a strong theme, developed characters, all held together by an accompanying notebook of notes, dialogue, bios and so on. While writing, I constantly added items to a list in the notebook; things to add, (extra scenes or dialogue) things to question, research, embellish and so on, or things to reword or cut out. In other words, things to sort out on the second draft!

The second draft; in this case, a read through with a few minor corrections here and there with my list to help me. I was actually surprised by how happy I was with the first draft and at the time, figured I only needed to polish up spelling, grammar and maybe cut out a few bits here and there.

Beta readers; feeling exceptionally brave and over-confident, I made the unusual decision to send it out to two trusted beta readers at second draft. I wouldn’t normally do this so soon, but there were two important things I needed to get their opinions on before I proceeded. One, the tenses change. Elliot is written in first person POV and everything is in the present tense. The adults of the story are written in third person POV and past tense. Don’t ask me why. No decision was made! It just happened this way and I liked it. A lot. Luckily the readers didn’t actually noticed the tenses, but they did have feedback on other issues, such as the middle part dragging and certain bits feeling repetitive.

Third draft; scary, self-conscious, tail between legs, unsure what to do or how to do it. Slowly I came to terms with the critique offered and realised how true it was. I did a lot of cutting out, rearranging and rewriting. I also made a list as I went through, plus I was already using the list I’d made from the readers comments. Things got ticked off the list as I went, so I knew I had answered various questions, or researched particular parts in more detail. By the time I got to the end, I had a new list. I still hadn’t set up a timeline, and one was needed, due to the main character’s disappearance at the end of the novel. What day and time was he last seen and so on?

Fourth draft; list in hand, questions in mind, I tackled it again. Obviously I was correcting typos, spelling and grammar issues as I went through, as well as removing repetitive phrases or words. I had things to add and things to change, for example, I realised too many of the characters were only children, so I had to add a sibling here and there. I also added the timeline and made a list of the exact times and dates the events took place. I needed to exaggerate certain things, leading the reader a particular way, for example, making certain characters darker than they had been. I also added a new scene to the ending and rewrote the first chapter, tightening it all up and hopefully creating more impact. In fact sharpening things up and cutting things out went on a lot!

Fifth draft; (where I am now) another read through, this time on my Kindle. It’s amazing how many more things you pick up on when reading in a different format. Spelling and grammar for example are far more noticeable on an ereader! I’m making another list as I go through, advising myself to reword certain parts, cut out words here and there etc. In fact, quite a lot of my notes this time around involve just cutting words out that do not need to be there as they add nothing to the scene. There is also a separate list above my correction list, which I add to any time something springs to mind. So, for example, while out with the dogs today I realised that a certain object needed to be found and mentioned in a certain scene, as it would add impact and credibility. So far I have seven items on this list; things to add to dialogue and events, things I simply thought of while going about my daily business.

Sixth draft; I will go back to the laptop with this current list in hand, and go through the manuscript methodically correcting the issues, cutting out the words, adding the things I’ve thought of, and so on.

If by the time I get to the end of this draft, there is yet another list on the way, then I will know a seventh draft is needed. Of course there will also be an even more thorough grammar and spelling check, and a proofreading, which will involve sending it back to Kindle to pick up errors.
patience.jpg

So basically, I’ll know the book is as good as I can get it when there are no more things being added to the list! When the list is ticked off and stays ticked off, it will be done. But it also more than that. I have to have the right feeling about it. And as I have mentioned before in other posts, I have yet to have that feeling with The Tree Of Rebels, hence it being held back for now.

I have to feel completely happy, completely satisfied, not just about grammar and typos, but about the actual story. Are all the characters doing what I need them to do? Are they fully alive and realised? Could they walk off the page and into my house to converse with me about anything? Is the beginning interesting and powerful enough? Does it raise questions and curiosity? Is the middle doing its job; developing the story, but keeping a steady pace, keeping the reader coming back for more, making promises? And does the ending satisfy, as well as tie things up if need be? More importantly than all of this, does this book make me smile? When I read it, what is my face doing? I’m pleased to say that at this stage, it is making me smile a lot, and I simply cannot wait to share it with you. I hope all the hard work will be worth it and that you will fall in love with Elliot as much as I have!

Now, over to you! Please feel free to comment and share! Do you ever worry that your book will never get to see the light of day? How many drafts is too many? How do you know when it’s done?